Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My Favorite & Most Popular Travel Posts of 2016

In case you missed any, here is a list (and links) to my favorite and most read blog posts of 2016.

My Favorite Blog Posts

Arusha, Tanzania: Four Days on Safari in Wild Africa
"In the coming decades and centuries, men will not travel to view marvels of engineering, but they will leave the dusty towns in order to behold the last places on earth where God's creatures are ..."

The Nameless Women Who Shaped My Travel Perspective
As I sat staring out the airplane window, I heard the thud of a large backpack landing in the overhead bin. A woman with short dark hair shoved into the seat next to me. She sighed ...

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: A Civilian "Lost" in the Pacific
Guest Blogger: Stephanie Anderson. I'm on a boat. And while I may not have found myself lost in any foreign countries on my most recent vacation, I did get the chance to get lost on an aircraft carrier ...

Bratsk, Siberia: A Country of Contrast
"Everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece. Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash. We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair." Lorde's song "Royals" is bellowing ...

Thimphu, Bhutan: Stumbling Upon or Selling Shangri-La?
Shangri-La: a mystical, harmonious valley; an earthly paradise; a mythical Himalayan utopia where people are chronically happy and isolated from the outside world. For years many have touted ...

Cinque Terre, Italy: The Italian Riviera by Sea
Nothing is more breath-taking than admiring the Italian Riviera by sea. As we cruised down the Ligurian coast in our private taxi boat, we gazed at rolling green hillsides dotted with colorful ...

Most Popular Blog Posts (Based on Page Views)

Imatra, Finland: Fifteen Efficient Facts about the Finnish
Why didn't we think of that? Reflecting upon our two years living in Finland, we've discovered several items the locals have enlisted to make life easier ...

St. Petersburg, Russia: First Fifteen Days of #Fails
In my 36 years I have moved 19 times. While I've been fortunate to experience different places and make friends all over the world, the process of moving is stressful ...

Istanbul, Turkey: The Truth about the Traditional Turkish Bath
For me the thought of a massage conjures up reflections of gentle kneading and peaceful relaxation with the light aroma of lavender swirling ...

Ivalo, Finland: Scouting the Northern Lights from a Glass Igloo
A short drive from the northernmost commercial airport in Finland and tucked well within the Arctic Circle, sits the new world-famous Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort ...

Novi Skomorokhy, Ukraine: Unearthing Treasures in Old Country
"Even if you have to put some in your shoes or the pockets of your suitcase," my mom told me, "bring back as much as you can." Most mothers discourage their children from playing in the dirt ...

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bordeaux, France: Sipping our Way through Sauternais - November 2016

The suit-clad concierge circled a region on our tattered map and said with a grin, “Just go here. This is wine country. Knock on the doors; you don’t need any reservations. The locals are friendly and will welcome you in.”

And so just like that we set out to explore the best of France’s Bordeaux wine region. After visiting an overhyped wine museum and twice feasting at the city's best kept secret, we ventured out of the city and headed south towards the towns of Sauternes and Barsac.

The country roads took us past wooden chalets, over winding rivers and alongside sprawling vineyards. At every road crossing, signs decorated with grape clusters listed the wine-makers in the area.

Parking our rental car in a gravel driveway, we mustered the courage to walk up to the first chateau and knock on the door. Upon entering the dimly lit room, we were handed a brochure and delighted to learn that the region was hosting a seasonal tasting and that forty-some local vineyards were taking part.

The Sauternais region of the Graves section of Bordeaux is known for some of the finest sweet white wines in all of France. Made of Semillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle grapes affected by noble rot, the wines in this area are distinctively flavored and can be very expensive due to variable production conditions. Often times, the dessert wines from this region are characterized by flavor notes of apricots, honey and peaches, are best served chilled and classically paired with Foie gras.

Over the next few hours, we visited seven vineyards. The friendly locals invited us into their chateaus walking us through the cellars and explaining the wine-making process. We were welcomed to sample a variety of wines at each stop, and several even offered multi-course dinner pairings. At many of the chateaus, local vendors set up tables selling homemade goods from artwork and jewelry, to honey, chocolate and cured meats.

What’s better than spending an afternoon hopping from chateau to chateau sampling some of the finest French wines? Not much, I dare say, and so this is how we spent one beautiful autumn day in southern France.

Bordeaux, France: A Date with Secret Sauce - November 2016

Ideally located across the street from the main pedestrian shopping area in Bordeaux, L'Entrecote can best be found by spotting the long, winding queue of people wrapping around the block.

The flood of locals and tourists begin to amass well before the restaurant opens its doors for the lunch service at noon and again at quarter past seven in the evening, and for good reason. L’Entrecote is known far and wide for having the most delicious meal.

You heard that right: THE most delicious meal. L’Entrecote has a set menu with only one selection which includes fresh baked bread, walnut salad and the main dish of thinly sliced, trimmed sirloin steak served in a secret sauce with a heaping portion of lightly salted matchbox fries.

Swimming in an unknown concoction of velvety butter and dijonnaise, the perfectly prepared beef is the star of the dining event and truly melts in your mouth. In addition to its famous nineteen euro dish, the restaurant also offers both house red and white wine and a full dessert menu for an additional fee.

Conveniently located in the five French cities of Toulouse, Nantes, Montpellier, Lyon and Bordeaux, L’Entrecote has embodied the motto, “focus on just one thing and do it really well,” for its last fifty years in business.

In Bordeaux, the restaurant is a finely tuned machine filling up its four floors with nearly two hundred hungry patrons within minutes of opening and serving up “delish” without delay. During our weekend stay, we visited L’Entrecote twice and are keen to check out the other locations next time we find ourselves in France.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Bordeaux, France: Red Wine Rapids & Champagne Waterfalls - November 2016

Touted as the ultimate amusement park for wine lovers, I envisioned La Cite du Vin to be something like an adult Disney World with a Splash Mountain roller coaster gliding through red wine rapids and champagne waterfalls.

At very least, I fully expected the wine to be flowing freely and to come away from the experience with a joyful buzz.

But to my dismay I learned that you can’t believe everything you see on a two-minute online infomercial.

After walking 35 minutes from our hotel in the drizzling rain, at the door steps of the La Cite du Vin we were brutally slapped with reality. There were no roller coasters. No grape stomping. No wine tastings. Not even any wine for sale other than at two very crowed high-priced restaurants.

Instead, we were thrust into a mob of people, shoulder-to-shoulder, exploring what could very accurately be described as a wine museum. I don’t know about you, but I feel there is a big difference between an amusement park and a museum. After purchasing the twenty-dollar entrance tickets, we learned that the workshops advertised online offering wine sampling were sold out.

Nevertheless, equipped with an audio guide to help us navigate the endless maze of interactive video kiosks and glass-enclosed displays, we wandered through the three-story building shaped like an angry snake and were schooled for the next couple hours on the history of wine-making and exporting, and the grape growing process.

Although we walked away from La Cite du Vin thirsty and feeling duped, we do now know a lot about grapes and learned a valuable lesson about internet advertising. Some things in life are just too good to be true. And in the case of La Cite du Vin, do yourself a favor and disregard the hype, erase it from your travel checklist, and instead beeline it to one of the many wine bars in Bordeaux that do in fact deliver on their promises.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cinque Terre, Italy: The Italian Riviera by Sea - October 2016

Nothing is more breath-taking than admiring the Italian Riviera by sea.

As we cruised down the Ligurian coast in our private taxi boat, we gazed at rolling green hillsides dotted with colorful villages and vineyards winding from the waters to the sky. Along the way the jagged shorelines with dramatic cliffs directed us as we passed by million-dollar yachts and humble fishing boats in the aquamarine colored waters.

Darting through caves and hugging the coastline, we made several stops along the Italian Riviera to explore the small villages. Seafood pasta tossed with oil and spices, crisp wine white, extra virgin olive oil and freshly-scented lemon soap were a few of the treasures we discovered along the way.

Santa Margherita Ligure: We began our adventure in the picturesque coastal town of Santa Margherita. A short train ride from Pisa and really anywhere in Italy, this charming spot showcases a sprawling marina, a castle perched on the main promenade and plenty of restaurants and shopping. It was also the only town to boast several five-star hotels with amenities perfect for an autumn holiday.

Portofino: A thirty-minute ferry ride from Santa Margarita Ligure took us to the small inlet village of Portofino. A not-to-miss spot, the collection of colorfully-painted buildings welcomed us into the harbor. On land, the streets are lined with gelato stands, cafes touting the freshest Italian fare and stiff drinks for a day of people watching.

For those eager to explore, there are hillside paths that wind upwards behind the village, past churches and through charming neighborhoods.

Cinque Terre: The holy grail of the northwestern Italian coastline, Cinque Terre is the name the locals have given to the five tiny villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Best known for their intricate web of hiking trails that link the villages, Cinque Terre is also accessible by water taxi, ferry and rail.
  • Monterosso al Mare: The northernmost village of Cinque Terre, it is also the largest of the villages and the only one with a lengthy beach area. This town in home to a convent, a partially-ruined castle and lemon orchards.
  • Vernazza: The birthplace of focaccia bread and referred to as the "truest fishing village" on the Italian Riviera, Vernazza has a church with octagonal bell tower, a castle and a sanctuary.
  • Corniglia: Not on the sea but perched 100 meters above on a hillside, the village has a population of only 150 people.
  • Manarola: Thought of as the oldest of the Cinque Terre villages, Manarola has a central church dating back to 1338 and is surrounded by hillside vineyards producing the local white wine referred to as Sciacchetra. Because of the narrow harbor, boats are lifted from the water and lined along the village streets for safe storage.
  • Riomaggiore: The most famous hiking trail links Manarola to Riomaggiore and is called Via dell'Amore or the Love's Trail. The paths get more challenging as you venture northward and many are currently closed due to landslides; make sure you purchase a permit before beginning your journey as there are only so many travelers allowed at one time.

Portovenere: This town south of Cinque Terre is the only one in the area without a train station, but is accessible by ferry boat. The entering waterway is guarded by an impressive fort and castle which tower over the town on top of rocky cliffs.

With numerous restaurants and cafes, it's also the perfect spot to sample some of the region's typical cuisine: seafood and pasta dressed with pesto made of the finest local basil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano.

La Spezia: All roads may lead to Rome, but it appears all ways out of the Italian Riviera pass through the city of La Spezia. The namesake of the province housing Cinque Terre, La Spezia is the largest city in the area and the main rail hub. Along with being an active industrial port, it is also the gateway into the southern Tuscan region.

Venice, Italy: Lost between Lasagna and Gondolas - October 2016

Venice is one of those idyllic cities where you feel like you have just stepped into a nineteenth century painting.
Men in black and white striped shirts effortlessly paddle gondolas through winding canals. Gold-domed buildings are separated by marble arched bridges. Bustling cafes and shops line narrow alleyways, and the aroma of piping hot lasagna lures you by the nose around the corner. Next time you find yourself in the floating city …

Drink: Stop by
Harry's Bar in Piazza San Marco, the birthplace of the Bellini, and sip a splendid aperitif of Prosecco and white peach puree, and perhaps sit at the table where Ernest Hemingway spent much of his time during the winter of 1949. Too early for a cocktail? Try instead a cake and the "Cioccolata Casanova," mint cream hot chocolate, in the longest continually open café in Europe, Cafe Florian.

Eat: Simple ingredients can create incredible feasts. Off the beaten tourist path in an artsy corner of Venice is the Paradiso Perduto restaurant and jazz club. For two, order the seafood platter and the most decedent homemade macaroni and cheese you've ever tasted. Not only will your hunger be curbed, but you’ll be delighted as the sous chef pushes a cart to your table and tosses freshly cooked macaroni into a cheese wheel as wide as a barrel and finishes the dish with a sprinkle of crushed black pepper.

Visit: While there is plenty to see and do in Venice itself, why not jump on ferry boat or water taxi to explore its famed archipelago. The small island of Murano is world renowned for its glassware. Whether you are in the market for a sculpture, a set of champagne flutes or a paperweight, you’ll find it here and you can also partake in a free glass-blowing demonstration at one of the many galleries on the island. A stone’s throw away, is the quaint fishing village on the island of Burano. One of the most-photographed spots in Italy, you’ll get lost in the rows of colorful buildings and be beckoned to the shops hawking handmade lace tablecloths and embroidered scarfs. Make it a day trip and purchase a 24-hour ferry ticket before you leave Venice.

Enjoy: Who says the opera has to be stuffy? Book a reservation at the
Musica a Palazzo and enjoy a traditional opera in a contemporary venue. Follow the actors through a 15th century palace on the Grand Canal as they perform in three unique halls and be brave enough to grab a seat in the middle of the show.

One visit to Venice is not enough. So the next time you go, take in the sights, smells and tastes of this majestic city, and truly get lost in its allure.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

St. Petersburg, Russia: First Fifteen Days of #Fails - November 2016

In my 36 years I have moved 19 times. While I've been fortunate to experience different places and make friends all over the world, the process of moving is stressful. Our most recent move to St. Petersburg, Russia has been no exception. More complicated and confusing navigating the language and cultural differences, my husband and I have managed to quite beautifully #fail our way through our first couple weeks.

Day 1: Today on the train from Finland to Russia, my husband and I are caught by customs smuggling chicken, sausage, booze and one lone tomato across the border. Fortunately, the inspector turns a frozen cheek and mutters “глупые американцы” or “stupid Americans” as she walks away.

Day 2: Our taxi driver asks in broken English if I believe Michael Jackson is still alive. I laugh. He glares at me through the rear view mirror and violently slams the brakes at the next red light.

Day 3: After being dropped off in the parking lot, it takes us twenty minutes to find the entrance to IKEA. We get lucky and find a discarded map. It's written only in Russian. We wander around for another ten minutes before entering into the store midway through the kid’s section.

Day 4: The first heavy snowfall blankets the city. Our coats, hats and gloves are in a moving truck somewhere. We get our first colds of the season instantaneously.

Day 5: We need to pay the Russian government to get our goods through customs. No credit cards or personal checks are accepted. The Russian bank rejects our attempt at a money transfer. We are instructed to pay in cash. We take out the equivalent of eight thousand dollars in rubles and return to pay the fee. The Russian customs official smirks and informs us that they do not accept cash from American citizens. We walk back to the hotel dejected and with a backpack full of loot.

Day 6: Numerous family members and colleagues comment about hearing a repetitive clicking sound on telephone calls with us. Some suspect the KGB may be listening. Conversations become shorter and less frequent.

Day 7: On our apartment walk-through we notice that all of the drains and toilets emit a smell similar to that of a rotten skunk carcass and the shower knob groans like an old man when twisted. The landlady explains this is standard for Russian plumbing.

Day 8: Our furniture and goods are delivered to the new apartment. Fortunately, all is accounted for and nothing is broken; unfortunately, I walk in on a man assembling my bed who is not wearing any pants.

Day 9: We become acquainted with the special features of our new living quarters: ridiculously slow dial-up internet, continually flickering lights due to power surges, the two minutes it takes for the television to come on, and the radiant heating system controlled by the government.

Day 10: Braving the elements with a purse full of change, I attempt to procure groceries. I learn the hard way that ruble coins don’t go as far as euros. The cashier shakes her head with hands on her hips as I slowly count out 560 in 5 and 10 ruble coins in exchange for O.J., milk, bread and eggs.

Day 11: After unpacking we carry the empty boxes and paper down the four flights of concrete steps from our apartment, out the door, around the corner and down the street to the dumpster. For some reason today the dumpster is missing.

Day 12: To unwind after a long day I set out to take a bath in our new claw foot bathtub. I start the water and go to find towels. Upon returning I find the tub filled with a disturbing liquid the color and opacity of chocolate milk. My husband instructs me to add some bubbles and it’ll be just fine.

Day 13: A pigeon flies into the apartment.

Day 14: My husband travels three and half hours back to Finland to go grocery shopping finding it easier and more fruitful than navigating the metro and underground shops here in the city. He comes back with four bags of Doritos and more contraband chicken.

Day 15: This morning following my shower, I walk to the window in a towel to see how hard it’s snowing. To my surprise what appears to be an entire middle school of children is standing across the street in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral peering back at me. I wave. A few wave back. Must be tourists, I think to myself. Way too friendly. 

Life in big city Russia is not for the faint of heart.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Chiusi, Italy: The Evolution of a Lost Masterpiece - October 2016

Following a mid-afternoon lunch of freshly-baked focaccia bread, sliced pork, buffalo mozzarella ... and a half liter of crisp house wine, it's nearly impossible to paint a straight line. And so I learned the hard way on day four of my week-long painting retreat in the hills of Tuscany.
Days earlier I had arrived by train from Rome into the quaint town of Chiusi, Italy, where my instructor, Julian, greeted me at the station with a warm smile. I was driven to the gated, hilltop retreat of Siliano Alto nested above a picturesque valley and surrounded by lush landscape.
The five-day painting class offered by Easel & Lens catered to professional artists and novices alike and aside from lessons included room and board.

Before candlelit, home-cooked dinners, I, along with my three classmates, spent the days in the studio overlooking the Tuscan valley watching lizards dart between the brick cracks and smelling lavender and rosemary whirl in the breeze. In the evenings, I retreated to my downstairs apartment across the hall from Louis, who I learned is an accomplished Australian artist currently immersing herself in an iceberg-painting period since visiting Antarctica earlier this year.

The first couple days of the class we practiced basic drawing techniques like hatching and perspective, and were able to experiment with various tools and mediums.

Our beginning assignment was to get comfortable with watercolor. While the other ladies perched on the back grassy hill and painted landscape, I chose to focus my attention on a green bench and rusty barrel situated in the front of the house. Watercolor proved to be extremely fluid and forgiving, and I enjoyed the exercise more than I thought I would.

As a welcome escape from our focused time in the studio, we spent one morning in the village of Chiusi where we strolled down rolling, cobblestone streets and through the narrow alleys. We sat in the town square with our drawing boards on our laps and learned tricks for drawing angles and dimension before stopping by the local farmer's market to pick up fresh mushrooms and leeks for dinner. 

Another afternoon we ventured to the nearby town of Cortona. Popularized by Diane Lane's film "Under the Tuscan Sun," the town buzzed with people and excitement.

On day three of the class we were tasked with finding our medium: watercolor, acrylic or oil. I opted for acrylic and set out to recreate a photograph of the colorful fishing village of Burano near Venice.

For three days straight under the instruction of Julian I created my masterpiece: first sketching in the buildings with pencil, then blocking in the background color and throughout using a fine brush to paint the details. Painting from a photograph, it was difficult to tell when the painting was complete as there was always more detail and color play to be done.

In the final hours of the last day of class, I completed my Burano painting. While some of the dimensions were a bit off and not all of the lines were straight, I was pleased and felt it effectively embodied the learnings from the week. I treasured the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary for me and took great comfort in the peace that came with "creating."

The day following class the experience and my masterpiece truly became priceless as somehow the rolled-up painting was left on a train headed to Genoa never to be seen again. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Imatra, Finland: Fifteen Efficient Facts about the Finnish - October 2016

Why didn't we think of that?

Reflecting upon our two years living in Finland, we've discovered several items the locals have enlisted to make life easier. While known for their environmental and social-consciousness, the Finns may not have invented these life hacks but they were new to us and notable to share with the rest of the world.
  1. Parking Cards. The Finns need not pay attention to pesky meters to secure a public parking spot. Instead the honor system is employed. Spots that are signed with a time limit require a blue card be placed in the windshield dash indicating the correct time of arrival.
  2. Shopping Cart Coin System. In order to borrow and "unlock" a shopping cart or buggy at the local grocery store, you need to deposit a coin into the handle bar. Your coin or coin-like token will be returned upon proper return of the cart.
  3. Drying Machine Bottle. Ever conscious of the environment, Finnish clothes dryers have a built-in system to capture the moisture loss in the process. Once at maximum capacity, the machine alerts you that the bottle is full and you can reuse the water to nourish your garden.
  4. Closet Organizers. The Finns as a rule make effective use of all spaces - no matter how big or how small. One example is that in smaller living quarters, closet organizers with removable baskets are used in place of dressers and armoires.
  5. Radiant Water Heating. Forget the thermostat. Wall-mounted radiant water heating units are secured in every room of the house to cut the winter chill in Suomi.
  6. Heated Floors and Garages. When the temperatures dip to 40 below, there's nothing more comforting than stepping out of the shower onto heated floor tiles or resting comfortably knowing the heated garage will ensure your car starts in the morning. It's the little things ...
  7. Dish Drying Racks. Who has time to use a towel to dry a plate after it's been washed? Not the Finns. Kitchen cupboard shelves double as drying racks with false bottoms allowing for the excess water to drip back into the sink.
  8. Public Firewood. You know a society is highly-evolved when it brags public areas outfitted with cabins equipped with pre-cut firewood and axes free for public consumption.
  9. Potted Herbs. In the middle of a long, cold winter, fruits and vegetables have to travel quite a distance to get to our friends in Finland. To ensure herbs are fresh and to extend their lives, they are purchased in grocery stores planted in soil cups.
  10. Transparent Window Blinds. When the days are only a few hours long, every ounce of sunshine, or even daylight for that matter, counts. To ensure their privacy but also take advantage of the daytime hours, transparent, one-way window blinds are the perfect solution.
  11. Curtain Clips. A bit conflicted, Finns are half of the time savoring the daylight and the remainder feverishly trying to block it out. Because darkening shades are required in the summertime, metal curtain clips are an easy way to continually modify your window treatments.
  12. Studded Shoes. Who says cleats are only for the ball field? To combat the bone-shattering sheets of ice present several months of the year, shoes studded with metal or plastic-bottomed cleats are in high demand. Some styles even have retractable studs to prevent sounding like a tap dancer while indoors.
  13. Shopping Bags for Purchase. Paper or plastic? Now that's a barbaric question. The answer is neither in Finland. In grocery stores you are required to bring your own reusable bags to carry home your goods or you can purchase a bag at the store.
  14. Silverware Buckets. Unless you are frequenting a fine dining establishment, you can find your eating utensils and napkins in a bucket. Finns save time setting the table or dishing out silverware to customers, by employing a fend-for-yourself policy. Just make sure your kids with grubby hands don't contaminate the batch!
  15. Checkless Pay. Can I write a check as payment? The question will send your Finnish friends laughing all the way to the bank. According to the local who schooled me, the country did away with paper check slips decades ago. Who needs something as formal as a check when you can rely on plastic or two Euro coins?  

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Bratsk, Siberia: A Country of Contrast - August 2016

"Everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece. Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash. We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair." Lorde's song "Royals" is bellowing over the car speakers as we drive through the dark, dilapidated industrial town of Bratsk, Siberia.

The twenty-something Russian interpreter sitting next to me in the backseat is humming along to the music while gazing out the window. Overgrown fields blanket the landscape dotted with broken-down buildings and trash. "Do you have any plans for the weekend?" I ask, trying to connect with the girl who will be my sidekick for the next day and a half. "Oh, yes," she answers with a smile. "I'll take a bus to my grandmother's dacha to dig up potatoes. We need to harvest them now to feed the family through the winter."

I nodded and smiled. This girl's reality couldn't be farther from the words she sings along to on the radio. The designer store studded boulevards and lavishly decorated palaces in St. Petersburg seem a world away. Instead of donning full-length fur coats and stiletto heels, the women in Siberia wear their hardship on weathered faces unmasked by gold-toothed grins. It's hard to believe it's even the same country I thought to myself; what an amazing contrast. 

I was in Siberia for work. After an overnight flight from Moscow over the Ural Mountains, we arrived into the south central Siberian city of Bratsk. The dimly-lit airport was one of the smallest I'd ever seen; our baggage was thrown onto a conveyor through what looked like a barn window. Once all of our belongings were accounted for, our group of two Americans and six Russians loaded into two vehicles and set out for the town of Ust-Ilimsk.

For the next four hours we endured a hair-raising drive through the Siberian countryside dodging stray dogs, chickens and cars approaching us head-on, before finally arriving in one of the most notorious places in Russia. Ust-Ilimsk was the site of a gulag in the 1930s where tens of thousands of people lost their lives.

Despite its grim history, we were now there to visit the town's paper mill. The mill and a hydroelectric plant are accredited for the creation of the town in the 1960s when people were recruited from all over the country to start-up the industrial city. The paper mill remains one of the largest employers in the area and even dictates the city's traffic flow with its shift schedule. After our two-day visit to Ust-Ilimsk, we returned to the slightly larger but equally depressed city of Bratsk to visit another work site.

All together, it was a humbling week. Unlike the Russia I was previously acquainted with, namely St. Pete and Moscow, visiting Siberia felt as if we were going back in time sixty years.

In Siberia, due to the unforgiving winters and harsh temperature swings, the roads are riddled with potholes. Communist block architecture towers over the cities and hides the sun. Buses blow clouds of black smoke that hang in the air. Faded and torn billboards flank the trash-littered streets.

Traveling outside the cities, the grass is uncut and fields are overgrown. Small wooden triangular dachas, or rural houses, are enclosed by rusty gates and bear the scars of broken windows and caved in roofs. In both Ust-Ilimsk and Bratsk, the city's main tourist attraction is the hydroelectric dam. Locals commonly retreat into the forested taiga to flee the noise and polluted air. Siberia is the far less publicized face of Mother Russia.

Regardless of the difficult conditions, the locals welcome foreigners to their towns with a smile and, not unlike the rest of Russia, are passionately patriotic. The lyrics of the pop song continue, "And we'll never be royals. It don't run in our blood. That kind of luxe just ain't for us. We crave a different kind of buzz." And maybe that goes for the people of Siberia as well. It's a different kind of buzz, but they keep marching on every day, working hard and digging out potatoes to survive the long, harsh winter that is soon approaching.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: A Civilian "Lost" in the Pacific - August 2016

Guest Blogger: Stephanie Anderson
Avid Tennessee Vols Fan, Expert Communicator & Fashionista

I’m on a boat.

Compared to some of my friends (specifically Kimberly Leupo), you could definitely call me a timid traveler. Other than Jamaica, I’ve limited my travels to the States and our great neighbor to north, Canada. And while I may not have found myself lost in any foreign countries on my most recent vacation, I did get the chance to get lost on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and I think the trip qualifies me as a Girl Lost in the World.

Unless you’re a member of the U.S. Military, specifically the Navy, chances are slim you’ll ever have the opportunity to board and sail an aircraft carrier. Sure you could tour one of the many decommissioned carriers that are open to the public, like the U.S.S. Midway in San Diego, CA, or the U.S.S. Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., but trust me when I say it doesn’t compare to living a week on a boat, in a stateroom with two roommates, surrounded by planes, helicopters and thousands of active duty members of the military.

So how did I get the chance to jump onboard? It’s called a Tiger Cruise – a chance for family and friends of active duty service members to see up close what life is like onboard a ship during deployment. My ship/boat was the U.S.S. John C. Stennis and I was a guest of my fiancé’s brother – a helicopter pilot based out of San Diego. My fiancé and his father were also on the cruise.

We were heading from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to San Diego, and were ready for a once in a lifetime experience. So what’s life like for five days on a boat with 5,500 people? Here are some of the highlights…

Living. I’m going to break this section up into key terms…

  • Berthing – Your room. Your home away from home. My room was designed to hold two officers. Unfortunately, we had to fit three female adults in there. I was late to the party, so I was gifted the cot for the trip. Home sweet home.
  • JanPam (a.k.a. PamJan) – The celebrity couple name for my two roommates – Jan and Pam. They were both moms, both nice, and both stole my bed options. Did I mention I got the cot?
  • The Head – Call me spoiled, but I’ve made it through life without having to use a communal restroom. That is until I found the Head. I’m still not quite sure how I made my way to it each time, but I did. Thank goodness…
  • The Wardroom – Food! Who knew you’d basically have food available to you at all hours of the day? Not to mention diet coke.

How do you stay entertained for six nights on a boat? Concerts and movies of course. Each night the hangar turned into plane storage/a concert venue/movie theatre. It was a great way to pass the time and especially fun when sailors were invited on stage to sing, play drums, guitar, etc.

While we weren’t hanging in the hangar bay (see what I did there?), I was excited to find televisions on the ship. Unfortunately, I’m the kind of person that can’t live without television. Luckily for me, the televisions had four channels – two of them basically devoted to the Olympics in Rio. There’s nothing better than cheering on America, while floating on an American ship, with some of the country’s bravest. Go America!

The really cool stuff.

Pearl Harbor – I visited Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial last time I was in Hawaii. If you haven’t been to Pearl, it’s something every American should do at least once in their lifetime. As you can imagine, it’s a different experience when you’re on a naval vessel – getting underway from the pier and transiting out from Pearl Harbor to the sea. Everyone gathered on the flight deck as a guide took to the P.A. system to tell us the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, complete with stories behind various towers, ships, and other landmarks. As we left Pearl Harbor we passed battleship row, along with the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial and nearby U.S.S. Missouri. We passed Ford Island on one side and the majority of ships moored in the present day naval station, many of them ships of foreign navies stopping off in Pearl before their long voyage home following the completion of the international war games, known as RIMPAC, just a couple days prior. We passed naval drydocks, some colorfully cursed by history, Hickam Field, home of the Air Force’s most advanced jet fighter the F-22 Raptor, and Honolulu International Airport before exiting into the open ocean.

The Airshow – By day three of the trip the skies and seas were clear and the pilots and their aircraft were ready to take to the air. The Stennis carried four distinct aircraft; two variants of the F-18, the Super Hornet and the Growler, one specializing in air superiority/ground attack, the other in targeting enemy radar stations. The second was the E-2 Hawkeye, with its giant rotating radar dome, serving as the carrier’s eyes high in the sky. The third, the Hawkeye’s bigger brother, the C-2 Greyhound, was charged with delivering personnel, supplies and mail to the ship. Finally, there was the MH-60 Seahawk helicopter – the rotary winged workhorses of the fleet.

They all took to the sky for an aerial demonstration, at first passing one by one as the show’s narrator explained the role and mission of each. Some took turns firing their guns into the distance, shooting rockets into the sea and launching flares, while others flew by the ship in tight formation at low altitude and high speed. Watching everything land on the flight deck was a show of its own – betting whether or not a plane would catch the first, second, third or fourth arresting wire (they’re what keep the planes from falling off the end of the deck; catching the third wire is considered a perfect landing).

Floating City – Carriers are referred to as floating cities, and that’s no joke. With the capacity to hold 6,500 officers and crew members, the Stennis has more people in it than many rural communities here at home. There’s a post office, general store, barbershop, hospital and even a jail. Everything needed for life at sea can be found on the ship. It’s completely self sufficient. Being nuclear powered, the carrier can go indefinitely without refueling; only needing to be replenished with food, supplies and jet fuel to stay at sea and continue its mission.

I could go on and on about all the cool things I experienced, the people I met and the respect I have for anyone and everyone who spent the last seven months on that boat. I’d only spent five days and knew I’d enjoyed my time, but was ready to be back on land. But maybe no one was more ready than the family and friends who had gathered on the dock to meet their loved ones; to see them, to hold them for the first time in seven months. Seeing their faces, their signs and even their tears, definitely put my five day, once in a lifetime trip, in perspective.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Novi Skomorokhy, Ukraine: Unearthing Treasures in Old Country - July 2016

"Even if you have to put some in your shoes or the pockets of your suitcase," my mom told me, "bring back as much as you can." Most mothers discourage their children from playing in the dirt, mine specifically instructed me to smuggle home as much as I could.

It was Saturday morning and my husband and I just landed in Kraków, Poland. Looking at a map we realized we were only about a pinky finger's length away from the region in the Ukraine that my mother's family was from. Not knowing when we would be this close again, we set out to devise a plan to visit the "Old Country" that I'd heard stories about all of my life.

I phoned my uncle back in the States to learn the name of the village my grandmother's parents were from. He sent me a photograph of an old map in which my grandmother had penciled in a dot and hand written the name but only a few letters were now readable. I also emailed my grandmother's cousin living in Massachusetts to see if she could provide additional details. After studying the map for a while and rehashing a few of the verbal interpretations we had heard of the village name, we located Novi Skomorokhy on the map. Moments later we received an email back from my grandmother's cousin and learned that she was currently on vacation in Europe, only a couple hours from us in Poland, and was considering visiting the Ukraine herself tomorrow. The stars were aligned.

The next morning at 3 a.m. we set out on our adventure. We had no family names or contact information in Old Country; we only had a dot on a map. Our plan was to look at names on mailboxes, knock on a few doors and hopefully find a local cemetery.

Nine hours later, including a three-hour border crossing, we finally arrived in Novi Skomorokhy, Ukraine. Greeted by a Cyrillic lettered sign, the tiny village of 500 people had one dirt road flanked with houses and fields. We stopped to take a few photographs of Orthodox churches and flagged down a couple of locals to chat. After about the third conversation my grandmother's cousin initiated in broken Polish, we struck pay dirt.

A woman with possibly the same family name as my great grandfather, Baley/ Belej, smiled and led us down the road just a few yards away. We came to the Kaspruk family house where my great grandmother Paulina's sister, Marinka's daughter now lives.

Having never seen us before or met my grandmother or mother in person, Nadia opened the door and invited us in with a warm hug. Her husband directed us all to the dining room where he broke out all of the family's finest liquors.

Over the next several hours the family invited over more relatives, cooked us a delicious spread, and we all tried our best to communicate. At one point Nadia brought out a pile of photographs spanning over the last 80 years most of which were sent from the U.S. back to the Old Country; I saw pictures of my great grandparents wedding in New York, family reunions and even my mom's high school class photo.

The afternoon was spent smiling and hugging, and thankfully after some time Nadia's granddaughter, Oksana Grushetsky arrived.

Oksana, my second cousin, knew English and helped to translate. We learned that the house Nadia lives in now, prior to it being redone, was previously lived in by Zoinka and two of Paulina's other sisters at some point, and before that the same piece of land was the site of the original home of Ilko and Paranka Kaspruk, my grandmother's maternal grandparents.

The hours passed quickly and before long we were hugging goodbye to begin our long drive back to Poland. Before leaving though, Oksana's father, Bogdon, helped James and I collect dirt from the fields behind the house to bring back to our family in the U.S.

Our final stop was at the large hillside cemetery not far from the house. We were shown a number of family plots including the headstones of my grandmother's maternal grandparents.

The day was long but incredibly rewarding. I now know family in the Old Country and plan to return bearing gifts. Along with new friendships and photos, we also successfully were able to smuggle four bags of soil from the Ukraine that day.

The dirt represents a home and the memories of Old Country that most of my family in the U.S. has never seen. My mom was right: a scoop of Ukrainian soil, however I got it home, would mean more to my family than anything else I could bring back, and it would also be the perfect addition to my grandmother's burial service next month.  


Monday, July 18, 2016

Thimphu, Bhutan: Stumbling Upon or Selling Shangri-La? - May 2016

Shangri-La: a mystical, harmonious valley; an earthly paradise; a mythical Himalayan utopia where people are chronically happy and isolated from the outside world

For years many have touted that they may have stumbled upon and discovered the closest embodiment to the fictional Shangri-La in the small land-locked country of Bhutan. At first blush it's not difficult to support the claim with its picturesque location in the Himalayans and well-known claim to have the world's happiest citizens. But if you look a little closer, you may just see the framework for one of the most cleverly concocted tourism schemes in the modern day history.

Painting the Perfect Picture
In the valleys below the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayan mountains, sit swirling rivers with pristine waters, winding narrow roads, finely-manicured fields and cozy villages and towns baring traditional Bhutanese architecture. It's a scene resembling the perfect landscape painting.

Pair the beautiful scenery with the widespread notion that the Bhutanese people are the happiest on the planet and it's no wonder Bhutan is often regarded as the last Shangri-La.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan states that the government holds a higher regard for the Gross National Happiness of its people than the Gross Domestic Product of the country, and claims that the Bhutanese need not amass material wealth in order to achieve happiness. The nation's Gross National Happiness philosophy is founded upon four pillars: equitable and equal socio-economic development; preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage; conservation of the environment; and good governance.

While Bhutan boasts a carbon-neutral status, aspires to grow 100 percent organic food by 2020, and holds a constitution which declares no less than 60 percent of its land remain forested, there is more to this relatively-unknown country than meets the eye.

The Challenge of Travel
In order to experience Bhutan for yourself, it is going to cost you, and it is going to be a complicated process. Allegedly protecting the country from the evils of tourism and realistically deterring low-budget, backpacker-style travel, the Government of Bhutan retains strict control and oversight over travel planning and execution. To visit the country one must go through the following highly-structured, four-step process:

1.) Visit The Tourism Council of Bhutan's official website. Select a tour operator from the list of hundreds of "approved" guides. Checking elsewhere online for vendor reviews can be helpful.
2.) Contact the tour operator with your travel dates and preferences. Settle upon a tour itinerary and price; most of the tours are standard and price differences are minimal. The government imposes a sustainable tourism royalty along with a minimum daily package for tourists of  USD $250 per person for tourists traveling in a group of three persons or more which includes accommodation, transportation, meals and the supervision of a registered guide. Expect additional surcharges for couple or solo travel and to upgrade facilities to four or five star.
3.) Wire the payment for the tour along with the visa fee to the Bhutan National Bank at least one month in advance of travel. While seemingly simple, this procedure can be arduous and require multiple attempts.
4.) Once the details of your visit are confirmed, the tour operator will assist you in making your flight arrangements on one of the government-run airlines and in sourcing your Bhutanese visa.

An Artfully-Devised Itinerary
Regardless of the operator you select, your tour through the country of Bhutan will undoubtedly follow the government-mandated route having you visit the typical tourist attractions like Buddha Point, Dochula Pass and Taktshang (Tiger's Nest) and you'll find yourself eating at restaurants catering only to tourists and hotels built exclusively for foreigners. You can find our detailed six-day itinerary by Rainbow Tours & Treks here.

The Truth Behind the Facade
While your entire visit to Bhutan is perfectly scripted from the moment you land at the international airport in Paro to your ascent out over the Himalayas, it doesn't take much to reveal the ruse. Upon walking through the capital of Thimphu, you are more likely to erupt into a jog to avoid an unruly pack of stray dogs than you are to be welcomed into a store with a smile. The locals aren't dancing in colorful garb like they do in the festival photographs but are instead waving off the beggars on the street corners or the lingering stench of the above-ground sewage flow.

The truth is that Bhutan's economy is struggling. The Bhutanese people were only granted access to television and the internet in 1999. Government censorship abounds. When asked about his desire to travel outside of the country, our government-provided Bhutanese guide smirked and replied, "Why would we want to waste our money on traveling? We have everything we need right here. We don't concern ourselves with the world's problems." Honest answer? Maybe. Government-endorsed message? Partially. Ironic? Completely.

So what's your take? Is Bhutan with its unspoiled charms and festival-rich culture the last Shangri-La or is the country carefully constructing a fabled facade to lure travelers at a premium? Whatever your resolve, a visit to this unique land promises to be a one-of-a-kind adventure.

Paro, Bhutan: A Six Day Cultural Tour Itinerary - May 2016

Bhutan Cultural Tour for 5 Nights/ 6 Days by Rainbow Tours & Treks 

Day 1: Arrival: Paro –Thimphu (65kms/ 1.5hrs)

Paro, altitude 2200m, is a town and seat of Paro district in Bhutan. It is also the home to the only international airport in the country. The flight to Paro is considered one of the most spectacular flight experiences in the world. While flying in and out of Bhutan, one can see Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makula and other high peaks such as Jumolhari, Jichu Drakey and Tsrim Gang.

After landing drive to Thimphu, altitude 2320m, a small, charming capital city nestled in the heart of the Himalayas with a population of about 100,000 people. It is nothing like what a capital city is imagined to be. All houses and buildings are painted and constructed in traditional Bhutanese style. While in Thimphu visit the following before overnighting in Namgay Heritage   
  • Memorial Chorten: This stupa was built in 1974 to honor the third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. This religious structure is circumambulated only in a clockwise direction (reciting prayers and whirling the large red prayer wheels).
  • Buddha Point: In the afternoon visit the world’s largest sitting Buddha, an immense statue housing a monastery and visitors center. Enjoy a stunning view of Thimphu city from this point.
  • School of Thirteen Arts & Crafts: It is the primary center of learning for Bhutanese artists.  Depending upon the student’s interest, one can specialize in any of the thirteen arts and crafts, including painting, weaving, sculptures, blacksmithing, embroidery, etc. It is the best place for visitors to learn about traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts.
  • Textile Museum: What would be the best dress to attend the festivals in Bhutan? The answer would be “colorful, hand-woven, and made of pure silk.” It takes almost a year to weave one dress, but a textile has become the largest industry in the country. The visit to the textile museum is an introduction to the Bhutanese national attire and the workforce responsible for these items of utility and beauty.
  • Handmade Paper Factory: Although the process of making traditional paper may be simple, a considerable amount of time is required to collect the raw materials, such as the bark of the Daphne plant and certain plant roots for glue. Apart from a small heater to dry the sheets of paper, everything is manually done. Daphne paper is one of the finest papers in the world and is highly recommended for artists.
  • Trashichhodzong Courtyard: This massive building houses government ministries, the Throne Room and the residence of Chief Abbot.
Day 2: Thimphu - Punakha (77kms/ 3hrs)

Morning visit the following places in Thimphu and proceed to Punakha after the sightseeing:
  • Takin Reserve: The National Takin Reserve is where a herd of Bhutan’s national animals reside. Legend has it that the takin is a cross between a goat and a buffalo, but biologists agree that its nearest relative is the arctic musk ox. This bizarre beast looks as if it was assembled from parts of several animals and vaguely resembles an American bison tinged in golden fur. Male takins have been known to hide by lying spread-eagle on the ground. Enjoy another spectacular view of Thimphu from this point. 
  • Zhilukha Nunnery: This is the biggest nunnery in Bhutan and is a good place to photograph and interact with the nuns and learn about what it takes and feels like to be a Bhutanese Buddhist Nun. You’ll see many nuns chanting prayers and turning prayer wheels in Zhlukha nunnery. In Bhutan, girls and women are admitted to nunneries for short to long period of time. They are educated in Buddhism here and after their graduation they dedicate their lives in serving the community at large. Spend some time interacting with the nuns and get to know their beliefs and worldview.
Punakha, altitude 1300m, served as the capital of Bhutan during the time of Zhabdrun Ngawang Namkgyal, the founder of Bhutan. Today it is the administrative and religious center of the district and the winter home of Bhutan’s Central Monk Body.

Start your morning by enjoying Dochula Pass, altitude 3150m, with its panoramic views of the Himalayas. The pass is decorated with 108 Druk Wangyel Chorten, which were built to celebrate the stability and progress, brought to Bhutan by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King.
  • Chimmi Lhakhang: Take a 45-minute hike round-trip through the rice field to Chimmi Lhakhang, the 15th-century monastery built by Lam Ngawang Chogyal on the spot where his cousin Lam Drukpa Kuenley (popularly known as “the Divine Madman”) subdued a powerful demon. This monastery is also referred to as the “Abode of Fertility” and believed that any couple who gets blessing from this temple is blessed with a child in the next year or so. 
  • Punakha’s Dzong: The name means Palace of Great Bliss. This dzong stands magnificently on the spit of land where two rivers (Pho chu and Mo chu) meet. Punakha Dzong has special significance in Bhutanese history as the place where Bhutan's first King, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned in 1907. It is also the winter residence for the Je Khenpo (spiritual leader) and the entire central monk body.
  • Punakha Suspension Bridge: This is an exciting bridge for photography enthusiasts.
In the evening visit a traditional farmhouse for an experience of an authentic Bhutanese lifestyle and the local hospitality. Here you will get to see the local Bhutanese way of living up close and personal. They are very friendly, would love to chat, show you around and share a meal with you. Spend the night here with the family. Overnight in Punakha Homestay.

Day 4: Punakha – Paro (137kms/ 4-5hrs)

Drive to Paro after breakfast and visit the following places before overnighting in Naksel Boutique Hotel and Spa :
  • National Museum: Ta- Dzong (the watchtower) was built in the 17th century to guard the Paro Rimpong dzong (fortress) below. It was said that the future first king was kept in this tower as a prisoner for a week. It was the third king who restored the Ta-dzong and converted it into the National Museum. The visit to the museum will familiarize you with the Bhutanese way of life and will also acquaint you with the natural and cultural history.
  • Paro Rimpong Dzong: Regal and imposing, dzongs are arguably among the most distinctive and important structures in Bhutan. The original Paro dzong dates back to 17th century and was built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the man who unified Bhutan. It burned down in 1907 but was rebuilt in the same year with the same architectural design. Currently, it is the headquarters of the Paro district, housing the head administrator and staff, as well as a monastic body with about 200 monks. From the dzong, hike down to the bridge and then take a short drive for an opportunity to explore the town of Paro.
  • Kychu Lhakhang Temple: This is one of the oldest and most sacred shrines of Bhutan. The inner temple was built by a Buddhist Tibetan King, Srongtsen Goempo in the 7th century.
Day 5: Paro - Hike to Taktshang, Tiger’s Nest (3-4hrs) 

Bhutan’s most scenic icon or the most important landmark, Taktshang the Tiger’s Nest clings to the side of a steep cliff 300 meters above the Paro valley. The place was first visited by Guru Rimpoche, founder of the tantric form of Buddhism in Himalayan countries, in the 8th century. It was said that he meditated there for about three years. The original temple was built in the 17th century, but tragically, it was consumed by fire in 1998. Like a phoenix, the temple was rebuilt to its fullest glory in 2003. Takshang is considered to be the 10th holiest site in the Buddhist world. You can visit three different temples inside the main Takshang complex. Riding ponies provided upon request. Afternoon/evening: experience hot stone bath at Naksel. Overnight in Paro: Naksel Boutique Hotel and Spa

Day 6: Departure: Paro
After breakfast, transfer to the Paro airport for departure.